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Illegal credit card skimmer use on the rise at Florida gas stations

By Malena Carollo
Credit card skimmers are increasingly being found in Florida gas stations. | [Times file photo]

BY MALENA CAROLLO

Protecting your pin while paying for gas at the pump may not be enough to keep your card's information safe. State inspectors have found more credit card skimmers in the first seven months of this year — 276 — than during all of 2016 — 219.

"Identity theft is the last thing Floridians and visitors want to deal with while traveling," Adam H. Putnam, commissioner of agriculture, said in a release. "An educated consumer is the best defense."

Credit card skimmers are small devices, some the size of a matchbox, that are placed in the dispensers and collect card information. This can include debit card pin numbers. Thieves can then make purchases with the cards' stolen details.

Some have wireless connectivity, which allows the criminals to siphon off the collected information via Bluetooth.

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On average, each skimmer found contained about 100 credit card numbers, and an average of $1,000 is stolen using each card. That means the take from one skimmer can amount to $100,000, Aaron Keller, press secretary for the agriculture department, told the Palm Beach Post.

"We are finding more because we are getting better at detecting them. Law enforcement is partnering with us. There is an increased effort to find skimmers," Keller said.

Detecting the skimmers is a multi-agency effort. Local law enforcement agencies look for the devices, while the Florida Department of Agriculture does its own checks.

Here's how the crime works: Thieves start with a universal gasoline pump key that unlocks the majority of the nation's gas pumps. Then, they install the device inside the pump's cabinet.

From that device, the data of cards used at the pump can be downloaded and later sold on the internet. Or, with a $359 card embosser and some blank magnetic cards, fraudulent cards can be made using the stolen numbers.

And it's not just one or two individuals committing this type of crime. The state agriculture department said it is likely that organized crime runs such operations. And the stolen card information is often used to steal gas.

According to Brian Krebs, a cybersecurity expert, the criminals clone the cards and use them to purchase gas at multiple fuel stations. The fuel is placed in gas "bladders" — hidden in hollowed-out trucks and vans — and transported to a giant tanker truck.

Then, Krebs said, the criminals sell and deliver the gas at cut-rate prices to shady and complicit fuel station owners.

Times wires were used in this report. Contact Malena Carollo at [email protected] or (727) 892-2249. Follow @malenacarollo on Twitter.